Penguins, Sharks braced for identity clash in Stanley Cup Finals


With the drop of the puck on Monday the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks, this year's Stanley Cup finalists, will be faced with their greatest challenge yet this postseason - themselves.

Well, sort of. Staring back at one another will be two teams who have achieved success executing similar high-scoring, pedal-to-the-metal philosophies. 

Both rosters are as star-studded as they are deep, experienced as they are quick, and - in Matt Murray and Martin Jones - feature two of the best young goaltenders these playoffs have seen. The few differences are barely discernible.

"It's going to be fast hockey," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after Thursday's win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in game seven.

"From what I've watched, [we're] two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their 'D' involved. 

"Their power play is really dangerous, so we'll have to find a way to stay out of the box. Very similar to Tampa. They did a good job of that, being disciplined. So we'll need that again. 

"But it's just two teams who want to play the same way, and whoever gets their game going the most often and the best is going to win. But it's going to be quite the series."

It could make for the most evenly matched Stanley Cup Finals in recent years.

Not since 2011 has the championship series required seven games but the Sharks and Penguins, ranked first (3.50) and second (3.22) in goals per playoff game, represented the best matchup out of the conference finalists to buck the trend.

A year ago neither seemed especially close to contention as San Jose missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and Pittsburgh barely qualified and went home after five games against the New York Rangers.

Both addressed their shortcomings accordingly, though. The Sharks fired coach Todd McLellan and stripped Joe Thornton of his longstanding captaincy, a positive in disguise that has paid dividends for Thornton since. 

In Pittsburgh, a blockbuster July 1 trade for Phil Kessel erased some of the sting from the latest playoff failure, but the sluggish start to 2015-16 both he and the Penguins made led to coach Mike Johnston being fired and replaced by Mike Sullivan in December.

Sullivan helped Crosby and Kessel snap their slumps and the Penguins became the hottest team in the NHL, going 33-16-5 the rest of the way en route to 104 points - second in the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins were barely challenged in the postseason before the Tampa Bay series, with the electric Kessel boasting a team-high 18 points in the playoffs while the three-game winning goals scored by Crosby (15 points) have been crucial to their return to the Finals after a seven-year absence.

However, rookies Murray and Bryan Rust have arguably been Pittsburgh's most important players. Murray has a .924 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average. Rust has contributed five goals, with four coming in series-clinching games.

The Sharks finished with 98 points, good for third in the Pacific Division but have shown that the regular season means little in the Stanley Cup playoffs, easing by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, before outlasting the Nashville Predators in seven and beating the St Louis Blues in six to reach the Finals for the first time.

San Jose's Logan Couture (24 points), Joe Pavelski (22 points) and Brent Burns (20 points) are the top three scorers in the playoffs, while Thornton is averaging a point-per-game (18 points), and Jones leads in wins (12) and shutouts (three).

The Penguins hold home advantage but, with the two regular-season meetings being split with both winning on the road, the outcome of the series is anyone's guess.